Uncategorized Archives - Revolution Bioengineering

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15 Dec

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the life sciences

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks a few days ago.

I have opinions about science journalism – especially when it comes to the life sciences - and I dislike the tropes that make up a lot of these stories: the flash of insight, first confusion and then a clear and compelling solution, a desperate race to save/discover/preserve/advance. Often, 40 years of research is compressed beyond recognition to fit one of these neat boxes, and the slow steady work of investigation is glossed over. It’s work to tell these stories well, acknowledging the process of science and complexity of interactions behind a discovery.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of the well-told stories. HeLa cells are ubiquitous in science – they have been used to investigate everything from polio to aging. Ten years of detective work and intense personal effort by author Rebecca Skloot brought her to the origin of those cells, and the resulting book is a densely interconnected narrative about the people who practice science and their culture. On each page, Ms. Skloot sets the abstract scientific world immediately adjacent to the one we live in every day.

When I brought up this book to a scientist friend of mine, he said he’d read it, and he had some thoughts on the book. “The science story was really well told. But the parts about the family, the parts about the Lacks? Those were boring and didn’t hold my attention at all.”

“The science story was really well told. But the parts about the family, the parts about the Lacks? Those were boring and didn’t hold my attention at all.”

The HeLa cell’s rise to fame is compelling – you watch the progress of decades of tissue culture on the page, from the “That’s weird” moment of discovery to the production of billions of cells for use everywhere in the world. But they aren’t the heart of the story.

HeLa cells came from a tumor that looked like grape jello, growing on the cervix of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Immortal Life was written because this scientific discovery was wrapped up in a black mother of five in 1960’s Maryland relying on a white man in a position of power to help her. With all of the social tensions held in that sentence, maybe it isn’t surprising that the black woman was lost.

Scientists are trained to zero in on the curious and the unexpected. The doctor had never seen a tumor like that before, and he never saw one after that. It was different, and therefore interesting. Working at John’s Hopkins he’d seen a lot of black women though, poor black women who had larger families and were not in the best health. To the doctor – and to my friend – Henrietta Lacks was less interesting than the thing growing inside of her.

This was 50 years ago, and since then doctor-patient relationships have gone through dramatic change. But in other areas, science and the people who practice it remain remarkably similar. Science can still see itself as isolated from the rest of the world, separate from politics and culture. In gathering input or sharing information, communities can still be treated as obstacles rather than partners. There is still surprise that language meant for scientific peers could be confusing to other audiences, conveying anything from indifference to the exact opposite of the intended message. One of my scientist friends finds Henrietta Lacks and her family boring.

Until The Immortal Life, research into the family or the origin of the cells used around the world was carried out with an attitude of objectificaton. The reporter that says “I just thought they might make some interesting color for the scientific story” is a reflection the scientist that says “The parts about the family were boring.” The Lacks are not real people in any meaningful way, they are vehicles for the story of scientific progress.

If that sounds utterly unfair, consider this excerpt from the laboratory assistant present at the autopsy, looking at the body of Henrietta Lacks and noticing her bright red toenails:

“When I saw those toenails,’ Mary told me years later,”I almost fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails and it hit me for the first time that all those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”

Science abstracts. It takes apart complicated interconnected objects and categorizes the pieces, splits a person into bones and muscle and brains and then splits those organs into even smaller pieces, into individual cells. Today we separate individual cells into proteins and small molecules and DNA and as we do, we learn more about the starstuff we are made of. Science abstracts. But scientists have to do more than that.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the author sets out to make the Lacks real people. While most of the scientists involved assure her that Henrietta and her family were willing participants in this story, one scientist takes a few minutes of time to apologize to the Lacks family for the way they’d been ignored, 40 years after the fact. No one ever had done that before. He suggested that his institution, Johns Hopkins, had screwed up. No one had ever done that before. He offers an art piece to the family, dyeing their mother’s chromosomes in fluorescent colors, and showing them the beauty in her contribution. No one had ever done that before. He explained that the cancer that killed their mother, the cancer that gave rise to the HeLa cells, that cancer was not hereditary, and would not kill them too. No one had ever done that before either.

He explained that the cancer that killed their mother, the cancer that gave rise to the HeLa cells, that cancer was not hereditary, and would not kill them too. No one had ever done that before either.

The scientist didn’t need to do those things, but it made a difference. These are the questions that the Lacks family ask when they are finally able to talk with an expert that sees them as people:

“Everybody always talking about cells and DNA – but I don’t understand what’s DNA and what’s her cells?”

“Wait a minute – none of our mother’s regular cells are still living? Just her cancer cells?”

“If those our mother’s cells, how come they ain’t black even though she was black.”

It’s easy to disregard these questions as uneducated, especially when they’re asked in an unfamiliar dialect. So let me rephrase them here: What is the relationship between DNA and cells? Can my mother be reduced to the DNA within her cells, is that all there is to her? How does genetic information become part of the world we know, the dark skin or warm hands or friendly smile of someone we love? And here’s a version of the question that we might be more familiar with – If I add a gene from a fish to a tomato, will it taste like fish?

What is the relationship between DNA and cells? Can my mother be reduced to the DNA within her cells, is that all there is to her? How does genetic information become part of the world we know, the dark skin or warm hands or friendly smile of someone we love?

Sometimes, these are questions are requests for information. More often they are questions about the concept of wholeness and how the self is linked to the DNA. When scientists provide strictly informational answers, they’re ignoring the fact that they are now part of a philosophical discussion on the nature of the self and the idea of completeness.

These concepts – you could use the word soul if you wanted – have inextricably worked themselves into the discussion around the building blocks of the life sciences for most people. In this situation, a technical explanation doesn’t just answer the wrong question, it makes the person asking the question feel as if the scientist is saying “Don’t ask that – it doesn’t matter.”

It does matter though. The questions asked of today’s life science tools by parents and grandparents are the same questions asked back through the decades, beyond the introduction of genetic engineering, straight back through the dawn of tissue engineering. The hysteria generated by the media is the same hysteria. When George Church suggests that we’d need an adventurous woman to bring the reconstructed genome of a Neanderthal to life, the ghost of Henry Harris rises into the headlines, shouting that we can create a “mape” by joining the eggs of man and ape. The fear the public has of prideful amoral science gone awry is the same fear it has always had. The gulf in understanding between scientist and non-scientist is perhaps even wider than it was before, even if it is not institutionalized in the same way.

I’m not sure what the whole answer is to this is, but I know that it isn’t a crash course in molecular biology or derisive comments or reassurance that no, that won’t happen. I think it starts with hearing the care people have for their family and their business and their health instead of focusing on the technical inaccuracies of their question. Thanking them for having the courage to ask and for giving you the opportunity to answer couldn’t hurt, and neither would having the grace to say “I disagree” without attempting to persuade them that your position is the right one or being offended that they do not share it. Maybe most importantly, we might acknowledge that science does not have all the answers.

We have the power to bridge this gap in a compassionate and caring way, but first, we have to have the courage to share that there is more to us than what we do in the laboratory.

There are those, like my friend, who will argue that this discussion is not part of science. This is some other type of thing that has nothing to do with precision or measurement or discovery, the processes that form the foundation of unbiased, dispassionate discovery. He has a point – the process of science doesn’t allow for metaphysical questions. But science doesn’t get done without scientists, and scientists are people first and foremost. We must be able to come back from the abstractions that help us learn about the world, in order to participate in the much messier world we live in.

This is the first of what I hope will be a long series of writings that encourage scientists, especially new scientists, to let their humanity shine through their work and into their conversations. I’m going to work on shining a light on those scientists who see parallels between protein engineering and writing Shakespeare, the minds that encourage exploration and unexpected connection in their laboratory. Let the machines count and measure–that is what they do best. Let the scientists tell stories about the world.

10 Sep

Where’s Revolution Bioengineering?

It’s been three thoughtful months for Revolution Bioengineering since the crowdfunding campaign ended. That was the end of the road for us at the RevBio team – we didn’t make our goal and the team couldn’t survive another year on hope and determination alone. But the color changing flowers are in motion.

The Weeds

Often, entrepreneurs idolize a technology that doesn’t actually solve the problem at hand. But in our case, it wasn’t the color changing flower that was important, it was the idea that biotechnology could be made accessible in an unexpected way. We fell in love with the problem – effecting social change with beautiful biotechnology.

The color changing flowers were a way to bridge a gap in understanding, an exciting new way to bring complicated science home in a very tangible way. By pairing our social mission with a practical economic goal, we thought we had found a way to fund a path towards an essential conversation that would go on to impact all of biotechnology.

In reality, while color changing flowers were essential to our social mission, they were underwhelming to the floral industry. And it turned out that the traits that would have made an impact in the floral industry didn’t have the instant, magical, appeal of a flower that changes color. In short, our two goals put us in direct conflict with ourselves. We had built the wrong entity to achieve our social mission, and the social mission diminished our ability to solve industrially relevant problems.

The Garden

Beautiful biotechnology intrigued the public, inspiring gardeners, artists, and scientists alike. We connected with artists in England and the Netherlands, and right now researchers in the Netherlands and New York who joined the cause and are in the process of building the flower. One version is shown in the picture below: It goes from white to hot pink.

Color-changing flowers are moving forward, but they will be introduced as part of a public discussion rather than as a product of a profit-seeking entity. I’m converting Revolution Bioengineering to the entity it should have been at the start: a non-profit organization dedicated to beautiful biotechnology.

I’m excited about the shift. I’ve realized that communicating and teaching are at the heart of what I want to do, and being able to share my perspective on biotechnology has been an incredible experience so far. People are excited about the idea that biotechnology can amaze and delight in the same way that today’s electronic technology adds another layer of experience to life. The concept brought RevBio to Portugal, where we spoke about beautiful biotechnology at a Thought for Food. It took me to Germany, where I gave a TEDx talk on applied biology and how we use the knowledge we’ve gained through decades of basic research to discover and to innovate. And in California we spoke to our own industry from a communications standpoint, to other industries about the challenges and potentials of biotechnology, and to executives from around the world about how biotechnology will play a role in the future.

New challenges

This summer, Nikolai conducted a job search that’s landed him in Virginia, putting his ideas to work in an established biotech company with the infrastructure and runway to make them real. While I’m sad the team has to split up, I know he’ll be an exceptional asset at the company he’s joined.

I spent this summer with Singularity University, an organization with a reputation for unbridled optimism about the future and unfettered enthusiasm for the way technology can shape the world. The difficult professional choices I was facing after RevBio had left me disillusioned. But the dedication of the students, faculty, and staff to cultivating a generation of caring and thoughtful entrepreneurs went a long way towards helping me rebuild my sense of wonder and excitement.

I was also privileged to participate in the SynBio LEAP fellowship program. During our week at Asilomar, we gained insight from regulators, advocacy groups, industry, and academia, and strengthened our own visions of the future for the field. For me, that vision included a framework for building trust between consumers, producers, and developers of applied biology.

The simple fact is, I’m still in love with the problem. The conversation about biotechnology is an essential one, and one that will only continue to grow in importance as biological knowledge is applied in new and different ways. I’ve been pleased to see a shift in the way genetically modified foods in particular are being discussed throughout the media, but the discussion about biotechnology, GMOs and how we relate to nature remains a difficult one. It is critical that we discuss these advances in a way that brings together different worldviews rather than driving them apart.

I’m happy to say I will be working on building these productive conversations in my next chapter. The project started at LEAP is growing into OneSky, a collaboration to develop the values shared between consumers, advocacy groups and industry and establish a standard of ethics, quality, and process in applied biology. I’ll be able to dive into these conversations knowing that we’re working towards a common goal – a more beautiful future.

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams – E. Roosevelt

24 Apr

Time to Grow

We didn't make the crowdfunding goal, but we're till growing
We didn't make the crowdfunding goal, but we're till growing

We didn’t make the crowdfunding goal, but we’re till growing

Hi everyone,

The campaign is over and we’ve raised an incredible $21,000! Every single one of you made a huge impact in this campaign – tweets, posts, articles, and most importantly contributions. Thank you so much for getting us this far.

People love the idea of beautiful biotechnology. Our artist partners have shared that museums and gardens are lining up to take part in the color changing flower art installation. We also have several scientists who will be sharing expertise and lab space to develop this flower over the next year.

We may have missed our mark on the crowdfunding campaign, but beautiful biology will continue on. We hope you will follow along with us for the next phase of Revolution Bio.

Keira & Nikolai
The RevBio Team

02 Apr

From color-changing flowers to deer-resistant tulips

Spring is here! Your tulips might just be poking out of the ground – or they might have already been eaten by deer.

But what if you could buy deer-resistant tulips?

Deer eating tulipsRevolution Bioengineering would love to make that happen. They are plant scientists, they have a passion for flowers and have enough ideas to fill a whole new garden. However, tulips can take five to seven years to mature, and that’s a long time to develop a product for a new company. So instead they’ve picked a quicker project: Color changing flowers.

In collaboration with scientists in the Netherlands and New York, RevBio is bringing petunias that change color to the garden in 2017. Their first flower goes from white to red when you share a beer with it – think of it as drinking buddy!

Our team is looking to the garden community to get these flowers into the ground with an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign. You can pre-order your color-changing flower and jumpstart development of other varieties like their next design, a petunia that goes from pink to blue and back again, using the plant’s internal clock to change colors every 12 hours.

color change flowersThat’s only the beginning for RevBio. CEO Keira Havens shares “Plants have incredible networks that they use to navigate their changing environment. We can work with these designs to breed all sorts of amazing flowers with new colors, scents, and patterns.” COO Nikolai Braun adds “In addition to aesthetics, we’d like to develop plants that use their resources more efficiently, and perform more robustly in the garden. I’m from Colorado and every year it snows in the middle of May – I’d love to be able to plant annuals in April and have them survive that last storm.”

01 Apr

Meet Geemo, the GMO Detector!

This little flower turns red in the presence of GMOs

This little flower turns red in the presence of GMOs

Find out if there are GMOs in your home with Geemo!

There is increasing concern about GMO safety in our post-agrobacterium world. Recognizing the need for increased consumer empowerment on this issue as well as an unmet need for more GMO transparency, researchers at Revolution Bioengineering are developing ‘Geemo’, a simple, easy to use, plant-based GMO detector that can detect the GMOs in your house.

Geemo is a white petunia that looks just like the petunias your grandma grows, but it contains a secret GMO detection system. Dr. Nikolai Braun, Revolution’s lead scientist described the way the system works to us: “All you need to do is pour a little beer into the petunia to activate the system. If there is a GMO nearby, the flowers will turn red.”

The petunia remains purple for five days allowing the user ample time to identify the source of the GMO. The simple yet effective detection system relies on anthocyanin production of the petunia—the same naturally occurring pigment molecules that color all petunias.

There already are some PCR-based detection kits available for GMOs, however these require specialized laboratory equipment that the average household doesn’t have. CEO Keira Havens shared that “Right now, there is a lot of fear and confusion about what GMOs are and where they can be found, and people want to know how they can distinguish between GMO and non-GMO products. Home detection kits are the way to inform and educate people.”

Learn more here.

02 Mar

Visit to IndieBio

Today Revolution Bio headed to San Francisco for a week of hectic meetings.  Unfortunately, the adventure started on the flights out. In Denver I dealt with lengthy airplane de-icing followed by a fog bank that halted all takeoffs. My two hour layover in Phoenix turned into a 2 minute sprint across the airport to make my connection.

Keira dealt with a snowstorm in Cleveland. Six inches of snow showed up overnight, and whatever time she had allocated to drive to the airport was insufficient given the conditions. She missed her first flight, the second was cancelled, and then she finally made it onto a third.

Cailfornia poppy

Cailfornia poppy, edited by @dailylaurel

But now she gets in at 10PM and in Oakland, not noon when I got in, so I had some time to kill. I emailed Ryan Bethencourt to see if I could go kill time at Berkeley Biolabs and get some computer things done, he suggested I head to Indie Bio to do that. So I did.

Indie bio is in an “up and coming” area of San Francisco. But after a winter in Colorado, I was delighted to see a California poppy blooming in the scrub patch right beside my car.

IndieBio Labs

IndieBio Labs

Ryan gave me a tour of the IndieBio space, and it is enormous. They have conference rooms, a large desk/computer area, and an actual lab. The lab is built out such that it looks like real science can be accomplished.

There are tissue culture rooms, hardware building rooms, food science dedicated rooms, and of course a lounge with a beer refrigerator.

I’m looking forwards to seeing what comes out of this bio accelerator. They definitely have the infrastructure for success, so now let’s see what those teams can do.

What kind of flowers are these?

Bonus flowers edited by @DailyLaurel

25 Feb

I was a judge at Thought for Food

This is like no other conference you've ever been to.

The Thought For Food (TFF)Challenge is focused on a critical global and humanitarian issue—feeding our growing planet. Our worldwide population of 7 billion is projected to grow to 9.6 billion people by 2050. We will have to produce more food in the next 50 years than all the history of humanity combined—not just because there are more total mouths to feed, but because people moving into the middle class are clamoring for more protein and better diets. Current forecasts of productivity increases show that we will miss our mark.

The future of humanity is literally at stake. This is superhero territory

The TFF summit brought together some of the brightest young minds committed to solving the global problem of feeding 9.6 billion people by 2050. They asked me and five other people involved in business, science, economics, and technology to judge the finalists and pick winners from amongst the best of the best.

The best of the best like to dance.

The best of the best like to dance.

We heard 10 inspiring and impeccably polished pitches by the participating teams about how their innovation will help feed the world by 2050. Each group was energetic, sharp, and clearly communicated what their innovation was, how it fit into larger infrastructure, and how it would make a real difference in the lives of people all over the world.

We judges were a diverse group with different backgrounds and expertise, but I thought Sara Farley of GKI and Gavin Armstrong of Lucky Iron Fish were the clear MVPs of the judging panel. Sara knows developing countries, knows how they work, knows problems and opportunities, and asked really insightful questions of each team. Gavin, with a strong business background and experience growing a company in challenging marketplaces asked questions that got to the foundation of the teams’ business.

Up on stage with judge Sara Farley at the Thought for Food summit, sharing my thoughts on the teams - such incredible energy!  Photo credit: Miguel Quesada, Thought for Food

Up on stage with judge Sara Farley at the Thought for Food summit, sharing my thoughts on the teams – such incredible energy! Photo credit: Miguel Quesada, Thought for Food

The insights that Sarah and Gavin brought was instrumental for the panel in picking the best team for the win– not that it was easy. We ended up delaying the whole conference because it was so challenging for us to pick the first and second place amongst the 10 teams.

In the end, we picked two second places, and wished we could have picked more. The runners-up were FoPo , a company that takes food before the point of spoilage and freeze dries it, thereby conserving it’s nutritional value and essentially giving it a limitless shelflife, and Aahaar- a middleman-eliminating solution for farmers and markets to deliver refrigerated food faster to where it’s needed.

Here they are, the Grand Prize winner, Innovision, and runners up, Aahaar and FoPo. Click through to see all the teams!

Here they are, the Grand Prize winner, Innovision, and runners up, Aahaar and FoPo. Click through to see all the teams!

The grand prize went to Innovision, an elegant and affordable food storage technology that keeps food fresh longer. Their innovation tackled food waste between the farm and the consumer making agriculture more efficient in an area of the world that is needs it most. This team of bright students from the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh absolutely has what it takes to deliver this idea first to Bangladesh, and then the rest of the world.

I talked with several of the teams afterwards, and they all had a great outlook on their path forward – these people are going to solve problems, and they won’t let one missed win get in their way. The TFF Global Summit brought together existing players in the agriculture with the brilliant young people that will change the way we feed the world.

Keep your eyes on TFF and the teams involved past and present. That’s where the superheroes are going to come from.

Why was a group making color-changing flowers invited to talk at a food secuirty conference? Click to find out!

23 Feb

Alliance for Beautiful Biotechnology

Welcome to the Alliance for Beautiful Biotechnology! We’ve made a commitment to beautiful biotechnology – biotechnology that inspires, uplifts, and delights. We’re starting with color changing flowers, and these great organizations have decided to join us. Interested in becoming part of the alliance? Send us an email or find us on twitter & facebook.

Fascination of Plants is all about celebrating the green things that grow around us. They want you to take a second look at plants - that's why they're sponsoring a contest to name our color changing flower!

Fascination of Plants is sponsoring a contest to name our color changing flower! They’re all about celebrating the green things that grow around us – our color changing flowers will help people slow down and take a second look.

IDT is inspired by Picasso's quote, "Everything you can imagine is real", and they've been kind enough to support our vision with synthesis credits & media coverage!

IDT is inspired by Picasso’s quote, “Everything you can imagine is real”, and they’ve been kind enough to support our vision with synthesis credits & media coverage!

Ball Horticultural is providing germplasm deep coloration an great growth habit.

Ball Horticultural is providing germplasm with deep coloration and great growth habit. Translation: We start with great garden plants.


Mebiol makes next generation cultivation materials - hydrogels that can support plants with 80% less water.  They're donating this cool material to the art installation.

Mebiol makes next generation cultivation materials – hydrogels that can support plants with 80% less water. They’re donating this cool material to the art installation.

27 Jan

Alstroemerias for Valentine’s Day

Roses are so 20th century– surprise your sweetheart with alstroemerias for Valentine’s Day

alstro1

Alstroemerias (Peruvian Lily) are dazzling flowers with large showy blooms where tri-color and quad-color blooms are common. Native to various regions in South America, they are extensively cultivated in the equitorial flower growing regions of the world for markets in the USA, Europe, Russia, and Japan.

alstro2

Alsotomerias have multiple blooms per stem and one of the longest vase lives of all cut flowers– it makes for amazing long-lived arrangements on Valentine’s Day, or any other time of year.

alstro vase

Besides the usual issues with all types of floriculture, alstormerias have one addition frustration for growers: slugs love them! Alstromerias are monocots that send up new shoots from the roots. The brand new shoots that emerge from the soil are irresistible to slugs.

Orange_slug

Can breeding solve the slug herbivory problem? Can biotechnology? What are some natural and existing slug-proofing solutions that other plants have?